Trans athlete Lia Thomas receives wave of support after ending college swimming career

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas holds an NCAA trophy while she looks off to the side

Lia Thomas wrapped up her collegiate swimming career over the weekend, with a wave of supporters attempting to drown out the hate.

Thomas has faced vitriol over her participation in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. It comes amid an exhausting debate over trans athletes’ right to participate in sports that’s consumed state legislatures, right-wing media and conservative commentators.  

The UPenn swimmer became the first trans athlete to win an NCAA swimming championship on Friday (18 March), finishing in first place in the women’s 500-yard freestyle. She continued to swim in events throughout the weekend and ended her collegiate swimming career with an eighth place finish in the 100-yard freestyle, ESPN reported. 

After Thomas’ historic win, rival Reka Gyorgy penned an open letter complaining about her inclusion in the competition.

Gyorgy, a Virginia Tech fifth-year and former Olympian for Hungary (where trans people have no legal protections or recognition), finished 17th in the preliminary heats for the 500-yard freestyle on Thursday (17 March), behind 16 other swimmers, but singled Thomas out as the apparent reason she missed out on the final.

Gyorgy said she felt “angry” and “sad” after the NCAA allowed Thomas to compete, saying the decision “hurts me, my team and other women in the pool”. 

She called the inclusion of trans athletes “disrespectful against the biologically female swimmer who are competing in the NCAA”, and that “every event” that a trans athlete competes in means “one spot taken away from biological females throughout the meet”. 

Many pointed out that there were 15 other swimmers who prevented Gyorgy from reaching the finals, while others took a moment to congratulate Thomas for her achievements in the face of constant hatred.

Erica Sullivan – a silver medalist at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and current freshman at the University of Texas – came out in support of Thomas in an op-ed for Newsweek.

Sullivan came in third at the 500-yard freestyle and was one of over 300 NCAA swimmers who signed a letter in support of Thomas, trans and non-binary athletes.

She proudly declared that all athletes, including trans athletes, “deserve to be respected and included, exactly as we are”. 

Sullivan said she had been “given a platform to advocate” for the LGBT+ community and “can’t sit silently by as I see a fellow swimmer’s fundamental rights be put up for debate”. 

“All swimmers embody a diverse set of identities and characteristics,” Sullivan wrote. “What makes us each unique also contributes to our success in the pool.”

She continued: “Yet no one questions the validity of how cisgender athletes’ unique traits and skills, or who they are, contribute to their success. 

“However, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas has been unfairly targeted for just that—for being who she is, a transgender woman.”

She condemned people who inanely claim their anti-trans stances are about ‘protecting  women’s sports’.

“As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership,” Sullivan declared. “Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list.”

She added that women’s sports are “stronger when all women – including trans women – are protected from discrimination” and can be their “true selves”.